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What other newspapers are saying: Young farmers confront soaring costs for land

Farmland in Lancaster County is valuable — increasingly valuable — in more ways than one.

It’s essential to the county’s farming heritage and because of its contributions to putting food on people’s tables. It ensures that the Plain populations and others raised in farming communities have a means of making a living.

And many new farmers from disparate backgrounds continue to find creative ways to take advantage of the good soil here, despite its rising cost.

In 2017, as Sauro reported, “local farmland was valued at an average of $18,285 per acre, according to the USDA’s nationwide Census of Agriculture, which is taken every five years. … At that time, Lancaster County’s per-acre land values already were well above statewide and national averages, which then were $6,470 and $4,030, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.”

Sauro noted that Lancaster County “has outpaced those averages in every USDA Census of Agriculture since 2002.” Another agriculture census is slated to be conducted this year.

Several factors make Lancaster County farmland so valuable: The county’s “status as a leading agricultural community in the nation, the benefit of Lancaster’s desirable farmland being so close to a vital infrastructure of farm-supporting businesses and markets, and farmland becoming available for sale relatively infrequently.

Here you would expect the tale to turn into one of woe — of most would-be farmers being priced out of the region, and of farmland being devoured by commercial and residential development. And there certainly has been plenty of the latter.

But as Sauro found, it’s actually pretty difficult to buy farmland for development in Lancaster County.

“Many Lancaster County communities have implemented agricultural zoning restrictions, an effort to ensure that certain farm-heavy areas cannot easily be developed for nonagricultural uses,” he wrote.

One aspect we found encouraging about Sauro’s reporting, though, is that the lack of availability of large tracts of farmland has not locked all young farmers out of the agriculture business.

Certainly, it’s daunting for some. We can empathize with Bryan and Brittany Donovan, who told Sauro that they finally settled in Montgomery County after a frustrating lack of progress finding and affording farmland in Lancaster County.

“It’s pretty infuriating when you are trying to grow your business and you are like, ‘I can’t find anything. I’m stuck,’ “ Bryan Donovan said.

But in many other cases — and because the acreage they seek to purchase or rent is smaller — new farmers are finding success here; often, they have chosen to cultivate one or a couple things and do it very well. So perhaps they’re growing vegetables or making cheese or raising beef cattle for Lancaster County’s farm-to-table restaurants, instead of trying to do all three.

Among the successes, Sauro noted the story of Tyler and Joella Neff, who were able to purchase 20 acres in Bainbridge for their niche beef, poultry and pork operation.

It took patience, planning and hard work, but they were able to achieve their goal.

“Like others, they started out on rented land, and they pursued additional revenue streams,” Sauro reported. “Eventually, they found more land to rent within the county, continuing to farm multiple plots as they grew.”

It’s encouraging that programs exist to help nudge this evolution.

Pennsylvania’s Next Generation Farmer Loan Program, administered here by the Economic Development Company of Lancaster County, is one such program cited by Sauro. It assists 10 to 12 new farm properties in Lancaster County each year.

“This is a program that Lancaster County sort of dominates,” Economic Development Company President Lisa Riggs said. “The program that we run here… is actually like a national leader.”

It seems only right that Lancaster County, home to the nation’s most productive farmland, is also leading the way in making sure there’s a strong future for agriculture in the decades ahead.

— Lancaster Online/LNP

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